When Dominican University of California last month was designated an age-friendly university by the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, it joined a network of more than 70 institutions around the world that have committed to becoming more age-friendly in their programs and policies.
Dominican is one of a handful of universities in California to have the designation, which heightens its credibility in its own local communities, said Dr. Ruth Ramsey, dean of Dominican’s School of Health and Natural Sciences. The other universities are California State University, Long Beach; California State University, San Bernardino; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Southern California; Palo Alto University; and Stockton University.
“I think it creates opportunities for our faculty to partner with other schools and to apply for grant funds to be part of initiatives that will advance this whole age-friendly perspective,” said Ramsey. “We’ve been doing this work for at least the last 20 years.”
A lot of the age-friendly work revolves around Dominican’s occupational therapy department, which Ramsey established early on when she joined the university 25 years ago.
“I became interested in these issues of aging, really, because I was at that point in my life caring for my aging father and seeing the challenges and the issues,” she said. “This has become a real focus of my professional work over the years.”
Ramsey said she feels fortunate to have other people at Dominican advancing the work, including Gina Tucker-Roghi, assistant professor in the department of occupational therapy.
Last year, Tucker-Roghi was awarded a $300,000 Geriatrics Academic Career Award grant by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant is provided over four years, at $75,000 a year, and is intended to develop resources and training opportunities for occupational therapists and other health care providers who serve older adults with dementia, which is Tucker-Roghi’s specialty,
“The federal government through this funding is trying to create really dynamic, educated faculty that are passionate about geriatrics so that we can create health care professionals that are equally passionate about geriatrics,” she said.
And that can be challenging.
“A lot of our students come into our occupational therapy program wanting to go into pediatric practice, for instance,” Tucker-Roghi said. “Given the shifting demographics in our country, we need a fair amount of our graduates … who are being trained in health care to go into geriatrics.”
Tucker-Roghi exposes students to opportunities in geriatrics by matching them with community partners, such as skilled nursing facilities. Some of that work is on hold during the pandemic because the top priority is to keep the residents safe, she said.
But Dominican has a number of partnerships, including with Marin Villages and the Council of Aging in Sonoma County.
Before COVID-19, Dominican’s occupational therapy students participated in the Sonoma County Council on Aging’s adult-day program for older people with dementia. The students provided respite to the caregivers on-site. Since the pandemic, they have pivoted to giving the caregivers managing their loved ones at home a break, either through socially distant visits or through video conference conversations.
Dominican also has collaborated for years with Marin Villages, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helps older adults stay active, connected and independent within their own homes, said Cheryl Sorokin, president.
Students participate in a variety of programs, though the opportunities these days are more limited during the pandemic. But there was one recent project that stood out.
Marin Villages paired a number of its members with Tucker-Roghi’s students to create a personal profile, a document that goes into an older person’s medical file if they’re hospitalized. The students created a number of personal profiles through phone conversations with Marin Villages members, Sorokin said.
“A lot of older people when they enter the hospital are incapable, really, of explaining their preferences” because delirium is a common problem among elderly people, she said. The documents contain information, such as a dislike for loud TVs or a need for extra blankets for someone who tends to feel cold.
Ramsey said statistics show the global population of people over the age of 60 will double from 11% in 2006, to 22% by 2050.
“We’ll all have to become more age savvy,” she said.